A face noble and Northern, austere but harboring perhaps a chink of humor, a face that looked as if a sculptor had just finished it, leaving a loose ringlet of hair to fall against the tall forehead met by high cheekbone. Yes, a face that suggested a military tunic belonged just below it rather than the perennial bow tie and, in rehearsal pictures at least (not that he liked to rehearse that much!) a prominent pair of suspenders. But while Knappertsbusch, or Kna as he was called in the trade, could growl like the most stentorian of parade ground sergeants – and his vocabulary of scarcely printable epithets wasn’t paltry either – such behavior was to a large extent façade. Kna spoke roughly, the great bass baritone Hans Hotter remembers, but with a twinkle; he was bluntly direct, but scrupulously fair; and beneath the rather alarming exterior performers in his charge found an unsuspected gentleness. Courtly, cussing Knappertsbusch’s dry sense of humor left a trail of anecdotes that follows him still in assorted memoirs. One records too that his obstinate integrity got him in hot water with the Nazis and out of a job as music director of the Bavarian State Opera, a post in which he succeeded Bruno Walter in the early Twenties. So he took his music off to Vienna, performances reflecting both his craggy exterior and the rather soft center inside.

Often with a Kna performance the ear is taken along a hard-surfaced musical line, a sort of orchestral pan forte, but likely as not it’s modulated by emotional warmth and a friendliness of spirit. Then there’s his tendency to keep the music alert with an extra sforzando or two: a crack in the surface can make a design! His performances were full of wonderful little passing gestures of color or dynamics that might be missed if one wasn’t paying attention.  He was, of course, never preaching an orchestral Style. As Wieland Wagner, the great enfant terrible of postwar Bayreuth put it, Kna didn’t do, he just was. There are no great operatic tempo systems a la Furtwaengler, although Kna would, occasionally, set a Moment on the expressive pedestal of a considerable ritenuto.

A good example occurs in his Vienna Philharmonic recording of Bruckner’s Fourth from the 1950s. While Furtwaengler in Stuttgart ranges well up and down the metronome to convey his vision of such diverse Brucknerian elements as the soulful-pastoral horn call at the outset, the rather combative octaves at Letters A and D, the somewhat leisurely of the theme at B which is said to refer to chickadees, then the poetical downward scale pointing toward the development at G – you can find him at 60, 76, 60, 88 and 48 beats to the changeable minute – Knappertsbusch transacts all this expressive business between half = 63 and 72, except that he permits a wispy variation on that downward scale to be frozen at a lovely and very low-lying 40 (!) to the minute, pathos-bright. This is bars 209-217, highlighting flute and clarinet and to be played, Bruckner notes, calmly.

Which brings us to an anecdote: Furtwaengler and the beret-sporting Ludwig Suthaus, the Tristan of their 1952 studio recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, were having a conversation about breathing in slow tempos, and Furtwaengler is alleged to have said, with his own twinkle under bushy eyebrow, “Go and try singing this under Knappertsbusch in Munich [postwar, that is], he’s even slower than I am.” But Kna’s Wagner timings can now and again be shorter — remember, too, that a longer timing of a performance by any rubato-savvy conductor might reflect the cooking up of several creeping passages with almost as many that are relatively swift. Kna’s tempos for Tristan and friends while adhering quite carefully to Wagner’s numerous calls for acceleration and retardation do average a little slower than those in what for want of a better term we might call “normal” performances, but such mathematical comparisons mean nothing in the face of the urgency of his 1950 Munich Tristan. Here from the start is the agony and the warmth of this ever-fascinating tale, culminating in a My God, What Have We Done? welling out of the Prinz Regenten pit as act 1 stumbles to its final questioning note in a splintering euphony, the potion drunk, the fate of the lovers sealed. This is a fluid, conversational, echt-organic Tristan, practical and domestic rather than lofty and stylized in the Furtwaengler mode, human rather than spiritual, muscular yes but without the streaming Furtwaenglerian weight that remains, in that London studio under the perfectionist eye of the producer Walter Legge, forever statuesque. Mischievous footnote: I sat near Legge at dinner in Zurich once — in two words, he HELD COURT. But onward! Dangerous, sinuous and rapturous is Knappertsbusch’s unfolding of the second act and we can only thank this slow conductor for zipping through the “optional” pages leading to the meat of the lovers’ great duet, pages these which are an integral part of the composer’s concept to be sure but can if not handled succinctly wear out singers and listeners alike.

Now the roll call of Knappertsbusch’s discography. Almost without exception the composers he attended to were main line Austro-Germanic and substantial: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Wagner. Meat, potatoes, gravy. But there is a William Tell Overture from 1928 with a delightful hunting horn atmosphere in that sizzling finale associated in the minds of oldsters with ye Lone Ranger. And the Nutcracker Suite, a 1950s recording out of Vienna, why this is a gem from first to last. Note an overture with short, mincing steps, full of anticipation, a naughty boy skip, and a deliciously nonchalant Chinese Dance. The icing on this Christmas cake is a Waltz of the Flowers in which the harp’s preamble is in its windup measures as crisp as Knappertsbusch’s entrance into the orchestra pit, which usually took the form of giving the downbeat a surprising several seconds before welcoming applause had fully receded. The efficient ripple here is a deadpan foil to an oom-pah-pah entering with ravishing lightness and an accent on the second syllable so keenly Viennese even a symphonic Professor Higgins might misplace its author’s Westphalian roots.

And the list of lolli-kna-pops would be incomplete without mention of the diffident cello and demure winds at the opening of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, an event peopled by chattering woodwind chaperones while half-lunging violins beg for recognition.

On to Beethoven! Now the Knappertsbusch listener who associates this conductor primarily with, say, the 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal in which tempos can lie embedded in a sort of lirico-ethereo cement, well, that listener might be surprised to encounter the lightness, charm and a considerable ration of briskness in his Beethoven Pastoral with the Dresden Staatskapelle. Hey, this could be Clemens Krauss or Franz Schalk at the helm, old style Viennese as can be, the rhythm maybe just a wee bit loose? The glory, of course, is in the details. First movement, a confiding poco diminuendo (it’s not in the score) just after the bar 4 fermata sets the tone of tenderness. This movement, by the way, runs in the fast pack, averaging pretty near a folksy-feisty 60 beats to the minute. Then melt in the Scene by the Brook to a series of Knappertsbuschian felicities: at bar 13 the tremble of vibrant and generous tone in a benedictory moment for the first violins (Beethoven marked it dolce) with the woodwinds and horns having melted away to give them a brief spotlight pastorale; then, in bar 28, as the music moves ardently toward the movement’s second key, a subtle and lovely diminuendo (not in the score!) at the top of an upward arpeggio in those busy first violins. As the late John Updike might have put it, Kna is falling into the crannies of the music. Such unnotated diminuendi are intimacy enhancers, great little boons to love scenes such as this. And how rarely conductors take the risk. Of the scores of conductors I’ve encountered in the Pastoral only Knappertsbusch and Erich Kleiber have skirted the dynamic straight and narrow on that enchanting page containing bar 28. Oh yes, Tommy Beecham too, with the RPO, but the arpeggio-perpetuo element of this movement he seems to find exceedingly boring and his brook wins no Michelin stars.

The Picnic movement of the Pastoral Knappertsbusch initiates at Beethoven’s marking, dotted half = 108, and the composer’s presto before the nastily intruding storm is absolutely taken at its word and-then-some. The Storm itself, running considerably FASTER than the composer’s marking, extremely BIG and URGENT, is obviously modeled on a Wagnerian tempest, the Wagnerian tempest Beethoven predicted! One’s tempted to say only a conductor frequently in the pit for Die Walkuere could send us running for cover from such an exciting show of thunder/wind/rain/the works. Yes, I will take Knappertsbusch and Stokowski to the desert island in this music. The tension is so great that in what you might call Beethoven’s “aftershocks” passage Kna conjures a kind of sigh or moan midway in bar 141, on the syncopation-like diminuendo of violins and violas. And then, as if to prove to followers of received wisdom that this is the familiar SLOW Knappertsbusch after all, he takes the hummy roll of melody in the Thanksgiving movement at 50 rather than the composer’s 60 beats to the post-storm minute.

The time-taking Kna returns in a forceful Beethoven Fifth, “live” from Berlin in 1956. The opening movement is passionate, endangered, sculpted with a metallic grandeur and pathos, the three-dots-and-a-dash taking in their instrumental exchanges alternate voices of pleading and compassion. An almost laughably vigorous delivery of the lower strings’ churning counterpoint in the third movement trio, sounding a good notch above Beethoven’s forte, brings a smile: this could be Kna the giant imp at work.

Then the best of all. In the last phase of the snaking transition to the grand finale, that sinuous limbo, just after bar 350, Kna takes Beethoven’s sempre pianissimo of finger-tapping timpani and meandering violins and lowers it to his own personal ppp, as if to squeeze the music through some exquisite needle of near-silence, the last kilometer of a tunnel of expectancy, an End of the Endurance so to speak, before the parade ground sunshine of the Big Bang allegro to come. Or perhaps he just liked the sound of that diminuendo! At all events the effect is rather like Willem Mengelberg taking a significant breath before launching into the climax of the Lohengrin prelude on an old Columbia 78.

Knappertsbusch’s Eroica? Interesting that in two broadcast performances, Munich/50 and Bremen/51, he sets forth even more slowly than Late Studio Klemperer, staying mostly in this ballpark of high spaciousness but finding with the exultancies of the recapitulation a good excuse to ease the tempo significantly while not jarringly upward. Impulse or design? Probably the latter. Even in the case of a conductor who felt strongly that rehearsing with its tendency toward boring the players, and himself of course, should be held to a minimum.

More creative interpretation in a 1958 Schubert Unfinished broadcast with the orchestra of the Munich Opera. It comes out of nowhere, rather in the manner of the third act of Meistersinger, other music in these players’ fingers and souls. Under wraps this Unfinished proceeds, veiled, guarded, exceedingly poetical-romantical. And then, thanks to broad pacing and 10-out-of-10 intensity, with shiny shafts of trademark Knappertsbuschian orchestral artillery, the development builds to a GREAT LAMENT. But what’s most interesting about this performance is that by emphasizing the moderato in the posted allegro moderato of Schubert’s first movement, and the con moto of the composer’s andante con moto in the second, Knappertsbusch with a slower-than-usual movement 1 and a faster-than-usual movement 2 re-invents this sawed-off while hugely viable symphony as a virtual Introduction and Allegro, or, in emotional terms, Tragedy and Release, with one big weight removed. No chance here of these near-twin movements running together like stew and salad on the same bowl-like plate.

Special delight: the hummily curving line of Kna’s lovingly melodioso phrasing at the start of movement 2. Unique!

And for more in the sui generis department: step back to 1925 and an early electrical recording of Haydn’s 92nd in which a slightly cloying but engaging introduction gives way to an allegro spiritoso so urgently “on point” in its phrasing as to evoke a hyperventilating lover. Pacing is fast here but not as fast as Kna’s inflection suggests. After this ants-in-the-pants exhibition the succeeding adagio unfolds very slowly, con amore, almost a Mendelssohn nocturne . . . Next off my pile of Knappertsbuschiana is a Bach Third Suite with Vienna Philharmonic players dating from the month the Allies were hitting the Normandy beaches. Hounded out of Munich by the Nazis in ’36, Kna had retreated to the sympho-operatic heaven of the Ringstrasse and environs where he could conduct in relative peace. Rather big band Bach, of course, done with the jolly determination of a podium hunk. The famous air is andante vibratissimo, and the bourrée unusually broad, sly and perky, becoming so festive it might be the recessional in a wedding ceremony. And come to think of it, my new wife and I, prompted by a young baroque musicologist friend, marched out some years ago to the finale of Bach’s Wedding Cantata. Nothing more logical than that!

Now I’m listening to a 1952 Schumann Fourth with the Munich Philharmonic. Kna’s broad and jaunty way with the finale echoes his festive treatment of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth, and thinking about this connection one can’t help wondering if Schumann wasn’t using Beethoven as a model here: sinuous transition, brassy finale, great zebras of churning notes a la the Third Leonore Overture toward symphony’s end . . . More fast Knappertsbusch tempos to report, the finale for instance of a Mozart Jupiter ”live” from Vienna in 1941. His 1929 studio recording of Mozart’s 39th with the Berlin Staatskapelle opens with an introduction absolutely majestic while almost falling over itself, full to the brim with sweetly bounding flourishes. And movement 2, nominally an andante: Kna’s courtly and decidedly up-tempo performance is so refreshing as to suggest a dance out of Pride and Prejudice.

And now we come to Brahms, perhaps Knappertsbusch’s greatest glory as much or more than his famous erector sets of Wagner where knee-jerk snailish tempos (remember of course he wasn’t always slow in this canon) can lose their rationale — why, Fricka berating Wotan in slow motion is a non-starter! Knappertsbusch shared with Brahms a personality blended with grit and warmth, a taste for big-bone musical structures and no-nonsense behavior, so they were truly made for each other and it often shows. Although truth to say the first Kna Brahms I pulled off the shelf, a Fourth Symphony from Cologne 1953, claims a rather plain Jane first movement. This is not Brahms in the Max Fiedler/Oskar Fried lane, the tempo struck is characteristically a little broad and frequently maintained. To paraphrase modern jargon, “It’s the simplicity, stupid” – excuse me, readers, that does not apply to you! So Kna like some accomplished footballer has run around the left or right end of those complex and highly dramatical interpretations that can be wonderfully interesting and moving, coming up instead with something anti-sissy, anti-geeky, possibly anti-Freudian?

But there’s a haunting moment at bar 258, the quiet tidal recapitulation about to begin and Kna, as if briefly lingering to imbibe the beauty of a pretty Bavarian damsel, pauses just that extra Max Fiedlerish amount to make the actual sounding of the recapitulation when it does come in all the juicier. And then more Moments! With the warm-throated recapitulation of the second movement’s ever-flo second theme Kna gruffly digs this music out of its hiding place, stern as a judge, but mellow underneath; and when this music takes on greater weight in the score he gathers it into an Elgarian peroration worthy of Nimrod and then some in a jam-packed Royal Albert Hall. Kna is warming to his task, complexity is growing. In the great passacaglia he’s a naughty boy at bar 9, the timpani’s trill into a staccato eighth punctuated with a snappish unscored sforzando on said eighth, BANG! And then we know we’re in for an interesting ride, fevered in fact, sustained and humming hairpins in variation 10 very trembly indeed, the flute in No.12 brisk (!) but plaintive, the espressivo dialogs in 13 Woebegone Plus, the legato arpeggios of sub-brass strings in 14 breast-stroking very slowly upstream, undulous orchestral serfs.

Brahms’ Third Symphony was, I’m told, Knappertsbusch’s special favorite, he wanted the slow movement played at his funeral. To say that his Stuttgart Radio broadcast of the Third from late 1963 is a remarkable piece of work is, I think, an understatement, because here is music translated into the journey of a soul. The protagonist in that Wuerttemberg studio may have been aware that his earthly days were numbered, and like the proverbial drowning man reviewing his life and hopefully adjusting as-best-he-can to its alternative — only it’s done here in slow motion! — Knappertsbusch conjures his own shall-we-call-it a Liebestod? The heroic grip of the opening of Brahms’ Third came naturally to such a muscular and unhurried conductor as Knappertsbusch, so the epic strength of its jumbo liftoff comes as no surprise. But there’s more, a floating in great waves of resignation, the music clothed in a pathos very close to despair. All is in order, though, and when the recapitulation arrives on the crest of Brahms’ elaborate taxi toward the tonic it’s as if the Gates of Heaven had truly opened, the orchestra is so comforting and golden while necessarily stark.

There are several other Knappertsbusch Brahms Thirds out there, and comparisons (we’re looking closely here at the first movement) are interesting. At the Salzburg Festival in 1955 an eight years younger Kna had the same blueprint of this music in mind but his mind was in a different place, so this performance while strong and scrappy and sometimes warm as fudge right out of the oven is more a performance than the confession of ’63. It is sweeter and more innocent because the man on the podium is not a condemned man! . . . And different circumstances in 1942 when Kna recorded Brahms’ Third in Berlin for Electrola, having presumably taken a rumbling train up from Vienna, past Brno, Prague, Dresden, the great old places, along the innocent Elbe, huddling in a cold compartment surrounded by tired military and Hitchcockian spies perhaps in trench coats out of a modern “Euro Trash” opera production. And you know what, practical happy old Kna had decided to rise above all this and in that Berlin recording session he launched into a Third that’s more Pastoral than Eroica, the mellowest of the lot, far from the maddening war.

This is the Kna who could find a place for the Meistersinger apprentices, well, a reminder thereof, in his Fifties Paris recording of Strauss’ Don Juan, not long after the great oboe scene. And that reminds me: one day in Paris I was innocently walking along Avenue Niel in the Seventeenth and who should be strolling along this leafy boulevard in the other direction, at an implacable tempo moderato causing this pedestrian to weigh the consequences of being run down, but the great Kna himself. He was as natty as ever in his Churchillian bow tie and seemed with his tall superstructure as monumental a figure as an old Cunard liner – or should I say Hamburg Amerika?  He was probably thinking of Brahms. Or how he almost became a philosophy professor. Or was it simply Paris? — about this time in Munich he prepared a notable production of that most un-Germanic of operas, Charpentier’s Louise, a love letter to the city of Gauloises, onion tarts and songwriters’ Aprils.